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In 1983 Chinese playwright, critic, fiction writer and painter Gao Xingjian was diagnosed with lung cancer and faced imminent death. But six weeks later, a second examination revealed there was no cancer--he had won "a reprieve from death" and had been thrown back into the world of the living. Faced with a repressive cultural environment and the threat of a spell on a prison farm, Gao fled Beijing. He traveled to the remote mountains and ancient forests of central China and from there back to the east coast, a ...
In 1983 Chinese playwright, critic, fiction writer and painter Gao Xingjian was diagnosed with lung cancer and faced imminent death. But six weeks later, a second examination revealed there was no cancer--he had won "a reprieve from death" and had been thrown back into the world of the living. Faced with a repressive cultural environment and the threat of a spell on a prison farm, Gao fled Beijing. He traveled to the remote mountains and ancient forests of central China and from there back to the east coast, a journey of fifteen thousand kilometers over a period of five months. The result of this epic voyage of discovery was Soul Mountain.
A bold, lyrical, prodigious novel, Soul Mountain probes the human soul with an uncommon directness and candor. Interwoven with a myriad of stories and countless memorable characters--from venerable Taoist masters and Buddhist nuns to mythical Wild Men, deadly Qichun snakes and farting buses--is the narrator's poignant inner journey and search for freedom.
THE RECENTLY translated masterpiece from the new Nobel laureate, Gao Xingjian, is a product of the author's experimentation with words, his exploration of the boundaries of conventional forms and his belief in the uniqueness of a literary voice. In important ways, the book is about the struggle of the individual over the interests of the group. Gao's protagonist is a composite character alternately portrayed as "You," "I," "She" and "He." In one chapter, Gao sheds light on his nameless characters: "In this lengthy soliloquy you are the object of what I relate...as I listen to myself and you, I let you create a she...You who are the partner of my conversation transforms my experiences and imagination into your relationship with her...She who is the creation of experience and imagination transforms into various images." "He" is created when "You" and "I" merge and become inseparable; when the need arises to incorporate a distinguishable space. What is most notable about these pronouns is that they are never grouped together into "We": "When I speak of me and you...I never speak of we or us...[T]hey are all the more substantial than what is known as we."
With its unconventional plot, Soul Mountain, which explores China's physical, cultural, historical and political landscapes, is charged with creative energy and artistic audacity. It interweaves myriad stories that "You" and "I" encounter while traveling, recollect from memories, glean from history or fabricate from imagination. The stories' settings range from contemporary China to ancient times—from the notorious Cultural Revolution to China's earliest empires. They cover locations ranging from the metropolitancapital to the remotest regions of southwest China, where ethnic groups coexist with primeval forests. They fuse Eastern and Western philosophies, from Taoism to Buddhism to Existentialism. In short, the book merges fact and fiction, past and present, legend and biography in unique ways that baffle, dazzle, excite and enlighten the reader.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Gao addressed the benefits of "cold observation," a means toward achieving higher levels of lyricism. "Poetry is hidden in such detached observation. If this observing eye also examines the writer himself, then even the sufferings and garbage of the world can stand scrutiny...While it causes pain and disgust, it also arouses compassion, pity and love and appreciation of life."
This is precisely what Gao does with Soul Mountain; he captures plights of human sufferings, invoking the tragedies suffered as a result of political dictatorship. By extension, he probes the inner self, the meaning of existence, the complexity of individual human relationships with society and nature. Throughout the book, Gao adeptly illuminates critical scenes with well-placed details: "I have in [my backpack] a Han Dynasty brick with a design on it," he writes. "I came across it in Hezhang where peasants were constructing pig pens with bricks taken from the Han Dynasty tombs." Such images, which speak volumes on behalf of a people plagued by one political movement after another, highlight the absurdities of benightedness and the destruction propagated by the Cultural Revolution.
Despite Gao's achievement, this new translation of his book is marred by flaws and inconsistencies. Not only is some of the original, graceful flow of the prose lost in the English translation but, just as unfortunately, the translation itself is riddled with mistakes. The language often reads awkwardly, such as in the line "His death takes place two years before I come here," or "So there is therefore still the unextinguished passion of a soul still being tormented." In the translator's hands, 1 million yuan shrinks to one hundred, while a portrait of Lao-tzu (the father of Taoism) by the famous artist Zhang Daqian changes to a portrait of Zhang Daqian's own father. "Middle school," which is the equivalent of junior and senior high school, is translated variably into middle school, high school and even primary school. In several places, the Chinese word "Haiba" is incorrectly used. "Haiba" is a transliteration of the word "elevation" and the term "above sea level." The translator, unfamiliar with its meaning, capitalizes it and treats it as the name of a place. The line that ends "...in the 2,500-meter giant panda observation compound at Haiba" should actually read as "...in the giant panda observation campground at 2,500 meters above sea level." These examples are just a few of the many inaccuracies that do a disservice to the original Chinese edition.
Soul Mountain is a colossal, encompassing work that was written, according to the metafictional narrator, "without conforming to the method [of fiction] which is common knowledge." This is not an easy read, and the mistakes in translation add an unnecessary element of confusion. The book is like a patchwork quilt made from rich, diversified fabrics in bold, original patterns; though the translation introduces crooked stitches, Gao's achievement still dazzles and delights.
The old bus is a city reject. After shaking in it for twelve hours on the potholed highway since early morning, you arrive in this mountain county town in the South.
In the bus station, which is littered with ice-block wrappers and sugar cane scraps, you stand with your backpack and a bag and look around for a while. People are getting off the bus or walking past, men humping sacks and women carrying babies. A crowd of youths, unhampered by sacks or baskets, have their hands free. They take sunflower seeds out of their pockets, toss them one at a time into their mouths and spit out the shells. With a loud crack the kernels are expertly eaten. To be leisurely and carefree is endemic to the place. They are locals and life has made them like this, they have been here for many generations and you wouldn't need to go looking anywhere else for them. The earliest to leave the place traveled by river in black canopy boats and overland in hired carts, or by foot if they didn't have the money. Of course at that time there were no buses and no bus stations. Nowadays, as long as they are still able to travel, they flock back home, even from the other side of the Pacific, arriving in cars or big air-conditioned coaches. The rich, the famous and the nothing in particular all hurry back because they are getting old. After all, who doesn't love the home of their ancestors? They don't intend to stay so they walk around looking relaxed, talking and laughing loudly, and effusing fondness and affection for the place. When friends meet they don't just give a nod or a handshake in the meaningless ritual of city people, but rather they shout the person's name or thump him on the back. Hugging is also common, but not for women. By the cement trough where the buses are washed, two young women hold hands as they chat. The women here have lovely voices and you can't help taking a second look. The one with her back to you is wearing an indigo-print headscarf. This type of scarf, and how it's tied, dates back many generations but is seldom seen these days. You find yourself walking towards them. The scarf is knotted under her chin and the two ends point up. She has a beautiful face. Her features are delicate, so is her slim body. You pass close by them. They have been holding hands all this time, both have red coarse hands and strong fingers. Both are probably recent brides back seeing relatives and friends, or visiting parents. Here, the word xifu means one's own daughter-in-law and using it like rustic Northerners to refer to any young married woman will immediately incur angry abuse. On the other hand, a married woman calls her own husband laogong, yet your laogong and my laogong are both used. People here speak with a unique intonation even though they are descendants of the same legendary emperor and are of the same culture and race.
You can't explain why you're here. It happened that you were on a train and this person mentioned a place called Lingshan. He was sitting opposite and your cup was next to his. As the train moved, the lids on the cups clattered against one another. If the lids kept on clattering or clattered and then stopped, that would have been the end of it. However, whenever you and he were about to separate the cups, the clattering would stop, and as soon as you and he looked away the clattering would start again. He and you reached out, but again the clattering stopped. The two of you laughed at the same instant, put the cups well apart, and started a conversation. You asked him where he was going.
"Lingshan, ling meaning spirit or soul, and shan meaning mountain."
You'd been to lots of places, visited lots of famous mountains, but had never heard of this place.
Your friend opposite had closed his eyes and was dozing. Like anyone else, you couldn't help being curious and naturally wanted to know which famous places you'd missed on your travels. Also, you liked doing things properly and it was annoying that there was a place you've never even heard of You asked him about the location of Lingshan.
"At the source of the You River," he said, opening his eyes.
You didn't know this You River either, but was embarrassed about asking and gave an ambiguous nod which could have meant either "I see, thanks" or "Oh, I know the place". This satisfied your desire for superiority, but not your curiosity. After a while you asked how to get there and the route up the mountain.
"Take the train to Wuyizhen, then go upstream by boat on the You River."
"What's there? Scenery? Temples? Historic sites?" you asked, trying to be casual.
"It's all virgin wilderness."
"Of course, but not just ancient forests."
"What about Wild Men?" you said, joking.
He laughed without any sarcasm, and didn't seem to be making fun of himself which intrigued you even more. You had to find out more about him.
"Are you an ecologist? A biologist? An anthropologist? An archaeologist?"
He shook his head each time then said, "I'm more interested in living people."
"So you're doing research on folk customs? You're a sociologist? An ethnographer? An ethnologist? A journalist, perhaps? An adventurer?"
"I'm an amateur in all of these."
The two of you started laughing.
"I'm an expert amateur in all of these!"
The laughing made you and him cheerful. He lit a cigarette and couldn't stop talking as he told you about the wonders of Lingshan...
Text copyright © Gao Xingjian 1990 English language translation copyright © Mabel Lee 2000
IntroductionA man is diagnosed with lung cancer -- precisely the same cancer that had proved deadly to his father not long before -- and then is surprised to discover in a follow-up visit to the doctor that he is in fact perfectly healthy. And, the good news is not delivered with the amount of sensitivity that a new lease on life would seem to merit -- describing the attending doctor, the book reads, "'Go and live properly, young man.' He swiveled his chair around, dismissing me." So begins Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain. It is from this peculiar and clear-eyed position that a journey begins through the remote mountains of China. The narrator explores rural villages and reflects on the influence that the Cultural Revolution has had on the people and the land, and reveals a rich inner life and a poignant search of meaning and a sense of purpose. The text begins in the second person, telling what it is that You do. Then it quickly switches to being told in the first person. Later there is a She and a He, both of whom take control of the tale for their parts. And while there is a clear connection between these narrative voices, each one also has his own story, his own feelings, and his own reasons for being on the trip. There is inevitably a certain comfort that the reader acquires with regard to the changing voices -- for, as with any set of characters, we expect different things from each one. Their issues cross over and their narratives correlate -- perhaps only vaguely at times, or even indiscernibly on occasion -- but always powerfully with regard to theirgenuine sense of yearning. Soul Mountain is an incredible epic that benefits from an author capable of describing the sound of a river at night with a great sense of poetry. And yet, he also has a precision in his writing that is almost icy in the way it captures both beauty and ugliness in people and in the world. A complicated and heartfelt novel that is rich in poetry and history, it displays an unabashed desire to find meaning in the accidents of politics, the progression of history, and all of the surprising effects of life. Discussion QuestionsWinner of the Nobel Prize for Literature